How Ayatollah Khamenei Keeps Control

No one in Western intelligence is quite sure who made the final decision to release the British captives this week. But the Iranians themselves have a fair idea, and the nation's fiery president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seemed to leave little doubt about it. "The pardon of the British sailors signified the Supreme Leader's kindness," Ahmadinejad told a meeting of Iranian officials in Tehran on Friday. The president was referring to the black-turbaned cleric who presided over the gathering: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei, a 68-year-old whose right hand was left paralyzed in a 1981 assassination attempt, has a tough job. He is the constitutionally designated leader of a modern state ruled by religious laws devised 1,400 years ago. And he must placate both the modern and the medieval sides of the schizoid Iranian state—a task that has grown increasingly complex in the 28 years since the Islamist revolution toppled the Shah of Iran. Despite Khamenei's association with conservative factions within the Iranian government, he is known to be a pragmatic man who is much more in touch with the society than people give him credit for. People close to him say that he believes in allowing Iranians more freedom in their daily lives in terms of clothing and public life. For the past 27 years, he has been a member of Iran's Council of Revolution, its president and, since 1990, the nation's designated Supreme Leader, the official successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic state. But Khamenei understands that the majority of Iranians, who were born after the 1979 revolution, don't necessarily share the ideals of their radical fathers. "If it were up to him he would allow much more freedom in the country than we have now," says a Khamenei associate who, like all Iranians asked to comment on the Supreme Leader, would speak only anonymously.

But whatever Khamenei may wish for, he has to justify his position as Iran's supreme religious authority by keeping his core conservative constituency happy. These include the diehard religious fanatics who refer to themselves in Farsi as zobeh dar velayat ("those who are melted in the leadership") meaning that their lives are dedicated to Khamenei. The ayatollah knows that it is this political base—the "melted ones"—who will defend him if either he or the nation is ever threatened.

Ahmadinejad himself, a former radical student leader that seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 (though his personal involvement with that hostage crisis remains unclear), is considered one of the melted ones. But now the perception inside Tehran's political elite is that Ahmadinejad is damaging Iran's economy and foreign policy through mismanagement. As a result, Khamenei is seeking the advice of reformists within the system who believe in change and engagement with the international community but who want to keep the clerical structure of the state intact. After Ahmadinejad's supporters tallied disastrous results in last fall's local elections, Khamenei began seeking the advice of former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani to shift the system back toward the center. In a speech last March, Khamenei declared that he supports Ahmadinejad's government but that his support was conditional "on the government fulfilling its promises to people and avoid infighting."

NEWSWEEK has learned that Khamenei stopped Ahmadinejad from taking part in a U.N. Security Council session last month because he felt that the president would be out of his depth in the meeting. "The Supreme Leader deemed that president would not be able to add anything to Iran's argument if he took part in the Security Council session," said a Khamenei associate."Since the local elections the Supreme Leader has become much closer to Mr. Hashemi and Mr. Khatami, but at the same time he cannot stop supporting Ahmadinejad," says the associate. Ahmadinejad "still enjoys a great deal of support and is still the president of Iran."

So until people like Khatami and Rafsanjani devise a clever way to reform the system while keeping Khamenei's leadership intact, the melted ones will be given almost free reign to protect the system. And in the estimate of many Western analysts, Iran's diplomatic and economic isolation over its nuclear program is only helping to perpetuate this reign, keeping the Khamenei supporters atop the power structure. In a recent speech, Khamenei called the current Iranian year "the Year of National Unity and Islamic Solidarity." And several Iranian officials and pundits, in anonymous interviews, all agreed that Khamenei has called for an urgent unity mainly because of Washington's harsh rhetoric against the regime and the presence of some 170,000 American troops in two of Iran's neighboring countries, Iraq and Afghanistan. Says one pundit: "National unity means that all different factions should listen to Mr. Khamenei as Iran's head of the state, and Islamic unity means that everyone should agree that he is the highest religious authority in the country and the Muslim world." Another commentator adds: "He is consolidating his power in the name of foreign threats and national security. And national security really means the survival of the regime."

Most of the melted ones either fought in the Iran-Iraq War in the '80s or lament that they were not old enough to have taken part in that conflict. Their views of the world are limited to the propaganda on Iranian state-run television, and they have a xenophobic view of the West—particularly the United States. While foreign threats are mentioned as the main source of danger to the survival of the regime, the hard-line followers of Khamenei regard homegrown dissidents as the fifth column of the enemy who have to be treated with the same severity as foreign soldiers. Recently, for example, it began an all out assault against women and civil-rights activists. Many feminist activists campaigning against unjust laws curtailing women's rights have been arrested and incarcerated in the past month. According to some who have been released, their interrogators questioned them about their contacts with foreign countries and organizations such as George Soros's Open Society Institute, which was established to promote democracy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. "The [interrogators'] main question was whether we want to stage an orange revolution [like Ukraine]," said one former detainee who spoke on condition of anonymity. The capture and release of the 15 British sailors and Marines will only help Khamenei consolidate his control—and it is regarded as a great victory for the melted ones.